Thought for the Day: Rickover – Hope is not a strategy

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H. G. Rickover, 1900-1986 “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” 

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“It is a human inclination to hope things will work out, despite evidence or doubt to the contrary. A successful manager must resist this temptation. This is particularly hard if one has invested much time and energy on a project and thus has come to feel possessive about it. Although it is not easy to admit what a person once thought correct now appears to be wrong, one must discipline himself to face the facts objectively and make the necessary changes — regardless of the consequences to himself. The man in charge must personally set the example in this respect. He must be able, in effect, to “kill his own child” if necessary and must require his subordinates to do likewise.” HGR.

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Rickover was eventually promoted to four star Admiral. Only 5 men is the history of the US navy have held a higher rank. He was in the Navy from 1918-1982, under 13 Presidents. No one, in the history of this country, in any branch of service, has served on active duty longer. Rickover outlasted MacArthur by more than 10 years.

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In the story William Wynne Sr. Turns 89 today, I shared that my father worked directly under Rickover for 7 and 1/2 years, developing nuclear power plants. Rickover was the head of Naval Reactors, an organization that reported to both the Navy and the Atomic Energy commission. NR developed, staffed, and put into operation every element of the nuclear Navy. For 30 years, Rickover made sure that US atomic submarines were the #1 deterrent to the USSR starting WWIII. Few people debate that Rickover could be a tyrant. No one debates that he was singularly effective at developing an entire section of the US military in the Cold War.

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In doing so, Rickover developed a rabid devotion to quality control and the understanding of human factors. These are common ground to building and flying planes. Read the quote again, and picture a homebuilder discovering a flaw in his workmanship or materials that requires him to rebuild or scrap a large portion of his project. This is being willing to “Kill his own child.”

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In the story 111 years ago today, The birth of flight, I brought up the fact that Americans a granted a freedom that few other places have had, not just in political rights, but also on religious and class matters. Rickover’s life and achievements are an excellent example. He was born in Poland, and not even allowed to attend school because he was from a Jewish family. His family fled to the US before WWI to escape Pogroms, run by Tsarist Russia that killed thousands of Jews. In the United States, he attended any school he was qualified for, and served our country with great devotion. In our country, as an ideal, we do not discard or exterminate people on matters of faith.

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When President Nixon awarded Rickover his fourth star, he made this observation about the man and our country:

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“I don’t mean to suggest … that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service, and particularly the greatness of the Navy, is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity.”

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For comparative contrast, consider that Great Britain had a fantastic head start in one of the most important technologies of the post WWII world; Jet engines. This head start came in the form of one man’s brains, experience and insight. His name was Frank Whittle. Because he was eccentric and from outside their regular engineering format, his patents and designs were largely ignored. When their value is realized, his company is nationalized, he was paid nothing, and he was fired. His politics make him a pariah, and he is never given a real chance to work in his field in Britain again. Later in life he emigrates to the US and becomes an instructor at the US Naval Academy. He lived in Maryland the remainder of his life.

Whittle’s contemporary in jet propulsion in Germany was Hans Von Ohain. After WWII, Ohain was brought to the US where he had a long career working at Wright Patterson’s engineering center. He openly said that Whittle had a great lead on anyone on the planet, and was the greatest innovator in early gas turbines. After meeting Whittle in person in 1966, he had this to say:

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 “If you had been given the money you would have been six years ahead of us. If Hitler or Goering had heard that there is a man in England who flies 500mph in a small experimental plane and that it is coming into development, it is likely that World War II would not have come into being”

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The next time you hear someone speaking derogatory words about the contribution on immigrants, or others doubting the value of Americas ideals on society, just reflect on the names Ohain, Whittle, and Rickover.

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In the above photo, my Father stands with my older brother and sister in front of the world’s first atomic power station, Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The photo is from 1959. The reactor was the same design that the U.S. Navy used in its ships and submarines. My Father was the project officer working directly under Admiral Hyman Rickover.  It was a very different time in America when a town was proud to be chosen for such a project of national importance. After retiring from the Navy in 1976, Dad went to work for Ebasco at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory on the “TFTR”, the world’s first fusion reactor.

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About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

One Response to Thought for the Day: Rickover – Hope is not a strategy

  1. Oscar Zuniga says:

    I was fortunate to have been invited to enlist in the NUPOCS program as a young mechanical engineer fresh out of college in 1974, with the promise that I would go straight in as an Ensign. I went through screening at the armed forces induction center in San Antonio, passed that screening, and then was sent to Washington D.C. for further screening for the nuclear submarine program. I passed the screening there and was judged able to live and serve for long stretches of time in confined quarters with a close group of men in secure conditions out of touch with the rest of the world, and our group was then interviewed one by one to explain to us the rigors and demands of undersea duty in nuclear subs. Six months at sea, six months not- and no contact with anyone when at sea. We were told that if we proceeded to the next interview, it would be with Adm. Rickover himself, because he personally interviewed and selected each crew member that was to serve aboard nuclear subs. With a wife and two young children at the time (later to grow to five children), I decided that it was more important for me to raise my family than to serve aboard subs post-Vietnam, so I never met the Admiral. It’s nice to know that I could have, though.

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